The Journey of Little Charlie

Written by Christopher Paul Curtis
Review by Meg Wiviott

The Bobo family barely scratches out a living as sharecroppers in 1858 South Carolina. Twelve-year-old Little Charlie and his ma face more dire straits after his pap is killed in a freak accident. While still mourning, Little Charlie is coerced by Cap’n Buck, the cruel overseer of the Tanner plantation, to join him on a journey to capture thieves who stole four thousand dollars from Mr. Tanner. It is not until arriving in Detroit that Little Charlie realizes the four thousand dollars stolen are really people: the formerly enslaved Eloise, Chester, and their son, Sylvanus.

Once the couple is reclaimed, Cap’n Buck discovers that Sylvanus is a student living across the Detroit River in Canada. Refusing to allow international borders to stop him, Cap’n Buck and Little Charlie concoct a plan to kidnap Sylvanus. All does not go according to plan. Little Charlie makes an emotional journey as well as the physical one—deciding in the end to do what he knows is right.

This is a compelling and ugly story for middle-grade readers told with genuine care. Little Charlie is a product of his Southern upbringing, yet in Curtis’s skillful hands he learns the world is not as he’d thought. Cap’n Buck is an undeniably evil character, yet he is layered and on occasion vulnerable. Little Charlie tells the story in dialect; offensive terms to refer to Black people are used, which, unfortunately, is accurate to the 1858 setting. Eloise, Chester, and Sylvanus, though minor characters, are strong and show the extent to which former enslaved people valued their freedom and to which they would go to protect those they loved. Christopher Paul Curtis does it again.